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How to Stick to Self-Tracking with Minimal Distress

Tracking shouldn’t be THIS hard! (credit: bobinson)

I got this question the other day from a researcher:

“A struggle for many people is figuring out how to adopt new health behaviors and habits into their lives and then sticking with them. Do you have any great insights into techniques that work best for people?”

Here’s what I answered:

Yes, I’ve been thinking a lot about this question. For background, here are two posts I wrote at Quantified Self on all the different things I was tracking and why I stopped tracking entirely for a while.

I have to say, tracking is HARD to stick to, even for motivated people. And it can even be distressing if you’re not tracking the right things, or tracking too many things. I’m working on a framework for how to stick to tracking and minimize psychological harm (still a work in progress!), and the principles I have so far are:

1. Track things you can impact and want to change.

Unless you have a specific observational experiment in mind, like how does the weather affect my mood, it’s best to measure things that you can change. That way you can see if what you are trying to do is working or not.

Say I want to lower my blood pressure. I can measure it every day, notice it going up on stressful days, and notice that on days when I try meditating in the morning, it drops. Now I have a greater awareness of what affects my blood pressure, and I’ve learned more about how to manage it.

2. Keep it simple.

The more things you track, the more likely you are to get overwhelmed and give up on the whole thing entirely. Choose one or two metrics that are very meaningful where you would like to see a change, and only focus on those.

3. Have intentions, not goals.

Goals only set you up for disappointment and self-judgment. And even if you do reach them, then what? With an intention, like the intention to live an active lifestyle, it becomes part of your identity. Then it doesn’t matter so much if you miss a day of running, and it’s easier to get back on track.

4. Be gentle with yourself.

We are human, we all mess up, and we are all hard on ourselves. Any amount of tracking you do will help you to be more self-aware, and is a reason to celebrate. And when you inevitably eat that donut or just feel like lying on the couch for once, that’s ok!

So what do you, wonderful blog readers, think of this framework? Any insights to add, or critiques?

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12 Responses to “How to Stick to Self-Tracking with Minimal Distress”

  1. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by harscoat and Quime Tapu, CureTogether. CureTogether said: How to Stick to Self-Tracking with Minimal Distress [...]

  2. It’s awesome that you wrote this, Alexandra. I think that self tracking has two hurdles to jump before it can become mainstream:

    1. As you point out, we can be too critical of ourselves, which can be extremely counterproductive. I ran an experiment on myself at the beginning of the year and found that the goodness or badness of my entire day hinged upon the number on my scale first thing when I got up. So I actually lost 5 pounds over two weeks (it worked right?) but quit tracking altogether because I felt like I was on an emotional roller coaster.

    2. We can get bored of things easy. If I’m not seeing results or even learning anything about myself, then what is the point in tracking?

    I just put some thoughts about this topic together yesterday, as I get asked a lot if Mood 24/7 can take in more data points… when I’m just trying to figure out how to get people to insert tracking even one daily data point into their routine.

    I have a feeling that a token economy (commonly called gamification) inserted into a tracking system is part of the answer, and am also interested in creating a suite of tools that can analyze feeds of data that a user already provides (status, check-ins, etc). So that the focus shifts to the fun learning about ourselves part of this thing we’re doing, instead of the tedious tracking part.

    Would love to collaborate on this framework with you. :)

  3. Wonderful insights, thanks Chris! Especially good point about making things fun – and having a buddy to share things with can help too.

    I will be running a breakout session to help flesh out this framework at the Quantified Self conference in May – want to come and collaborate there?

  4. I particularly like “set intentions, not goals.” I think it’s a good way to internalize the idea of focusing on the day-in, day-out process, and it’s a subtle reframing of the idea of goals. I think visions and big picture thought are all useful, but can get surprisingly distressing, and I feel like intention-setting is a nice way of framing a goal in a livable way.

    I think keeping metrics simple too is really important, and feel that it’s easy to understimate the complexity even engaging with one metric adds to one life.

  5. Thanks Nagle! Yes, the point of this framework is really to minimize the psychological distress that can come with tracking (and that I’ve experienced myself). Thanks for reflecting that, and for your thoughtful validation of some of the points. Much appreciated!!
    - Alex :)

  6. You know, thinking more about this, I’m going to sound heretical, but I actually don’t think fun has much to do with it. Meaning and connection are much more important and motivating than fun, in my opinion.

  7. in reply to the idea of fun:

    I just read something last night by Adyashanti (a Zen and Advaita inspired teacher) where he said that the point of awakening wasn’t to feel better or to be happy, but rather that these are common and potential side effects.

    I wonder if fun is like that in tracking? Not the point but a likely side effect of a personally or socially meaningful investigation? Parts of my chronic pain research project were intensely unpleasant in the process… but the end result of it — regaining the ability to read among other things — was one that deeply improved my satisfaction with life. And indeed, he first month I could read again I was ecstatic pretty much all month… I think the context of the investigation as a whole (and support from friends =) carried me through the parts I really didn’t like. The fun was not there every step, or every day, but it was definitely there in abundance when I had some meaningful results from the whole process…

  8. I would have to say that sustained tracking requires feedback, preferably in the form of external social reinforcement and benefits when the process itself is engaging.

    Of course my only success with self tracking came when I had a doctor I liked who gave me some clear metrics to track and some clear goals. This was only for the short term; I’ve never been successful in long term written tracking although I do keep a mental note of really bad and really good days and the events proceeding them as I’ve said elsewhere. If I had a good professional to work with, or the appropriate social group to collaborate with, this might change.

    As for fun, unfortunately the road to insight is paved with failures and failure is rarely fun, even when you know it’s part of the process. Success yields a short term burst of enthusiasm, but unless you can make tracking a by-product of something entertaining like gaming, I think we need to focus on appealing to the satisfaction that comes from successful process. And that’s what I mean by engaging. Seeing that I’ve run experiments, come up with solid conclusions and have confidence that I’m making progress is highly motivating even if it isn’t fun on a day to day basis.

    I agree with prior comments about focus, limiting cognitive burden, and not having to face depressing aggregate facts every day.

  9. Denise Springer Says:

    I use astrology to time my new initiatives. For example, I start a new health or fitness routine when the new moon is in my house of health (6th house). It seems to help. There are many other transits that can be used for timing health-related activities.

  10. Hi Alex,

    I completely agree with ‘Have Intentions’.

    When I decided to run a distance event my intention was to enjoy training, remain injury free, take no drugs (painkillers, etc) and most importantly finish the distance with a smyle on my face.

    The outcome of this set of intentions was lots of fun for me because I could never fail, yet I was always trending toward a goal.

    During this time I did track – morning Blood Pressure/Heart Rate, Run Distance & Heart Rate, water and fuel intake during training sessions.

    I had fun the entire time because I was learning about myself, and this newly increased fitness allowed me to do other physical endeavors much better, and (subjectively) increased overall Happiness.

  11. @Nagle: Yes, I think this makes sense – that fun is one outcome, but not the point of self-tracking. I think it’s a good idea to make tracking/behavior change as easy and comfortable as possible for yourself, but expecting it to be always fun, or even mostly fun, is setting yourself up for disappointment. And designing for fun feels like setting up false expectations to me. People play games to escape life, so trying to apply games *to* life feels contrived and only of short-term benefit to me.

    @Ian: Thank you for your thoughtful additions! Yes, feedback and seeing your outcome improve are important part of being motivated to continue, and connection to supportive people can very helpful.

    @John – Thank you too, for sharing your story! Intentions can be more enjoyable because they are more flexible, so you spend less time beating yourself up. My kids have started saying things like, “my intention is to not bite my nails”, and then record nail-biting every day to see how it’s going – and it surprised me to see that the self-abuse about the nail-biting has drastically reduced, even if the biting itself hasn’t changed that much. All because there wasn’t a rigid expectation to stop completely, which inevitably leads to failure.

    Thanks for your thoughts, everyone, this has been very helpful. :)

  12. > how to adopt new health behaviors and habits and stick with them

    Ian Ayres’ talk at QS Boston not long ago about was revealing in this regard, esp. with respect to the kinds of incentives that can help.

    > tracking is HARD to stick to, even for motivated people

    Yes! That was one of the lessons I’d edited out of my post Designing good experiments: Some mistakes and lessons. You really have to be motivated, something Seth and I discussed during a recent phone call. I guess like anything, the gain threshold must exceed the pain one, in this case, benefits > effort.

    I think your points are very good, Alex. 1) goes to authentic motivation, 2) lowers barriers, and 3) and 4) address being human. I have to think about what else there might be…

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